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Review: James Swain’s ‘The King Tides’ a swift Florida mystery

Author James Swain.
Thursday 16 August 2018 10.00

Most parents of pretty teenage daughters are prepared to see boys mooning over their girls.

But the parents of Nicki Pearl are not prepared for the growing number of adult men — all of them strangers — who seem to be stalking their daughter in the three months since they moved to Fort Lauderdale. When a pair of men armed with chloroform and a wheelchair try to abduct her during a shopping trip to the mall, the Pearls know they need help.

The local police suggest they hire a bodyguard for Nicki, which leads them to interview a lone-wolf investigator named Jon Lancaster. Money is no object for the family, but they’re underwhelmed by their first impression of Lancaster, a short, blunt-spoken guy with a potbelly and a Jimmy Buffett T-shirt. It won’t take long for the case to escalate dramatically — and for the Pearls to realize Lancaster is the man they need.

James Swain, who lives in Odessa, has written 20 mystery novels, including series about gambling investigator Tony Valentine and magician Peter Warlock. (Swain himself is a skilled magician and expert on gambling crime.)

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In his latest novel, The King Tides, Swain introduces Lancaster, a former Navy SEAL and police officer with exceptional skills and fierce determination. After a video of his risky but successful rescue of a kidnapped child went viral, bringing him fame and some fortune, he left the force and became a private investigator.

The Pearls might be sniffy about Lancaster’s appearance — he was working undercover on another case and didn’t have time to change before he met them — but they aren’t imagining the danger their daughter is in. While they’re interviewing him at their waterfront home, Nicki, who’s sunbathing in the back yard, is abducted by two men in a boat, who speed for open water. Lancaster’s crack shooting and the teen’s own initiative save her, but he’s convinced the stalkers are deadly serious.

Lancaster uses an array of high-tech tools in his work, and, having been a viral sensation himself, he suspects Nicki’s plight might have something to do with the internet, and possibly with online pornography. Her protective parents insist that can’t be true, and Nicki herself seems like a genuine innocent.

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What Lancaster discovers as he pursues the case seems contradictory: It appears unlikely Nicki did anything to ignite her stalkers’ interest, yet growing evidence points to the men’s common involvement in child porn. Things take an even more sinister turn as he uncovers connections to a serial killer case.

Lancaster, Swain writes, "had dealt with serial killers before. What always surprised him was their ordinariness. They were not cannibals who wore flesh masks and danced naked beneath the full moon. They went to ball games, ate fast food, and wore regular clothes. They were as dull as dirt, except when that inner alarm clock in their heads went off, telling them to kill again. Then the monsters came out."

To catch such monsters, Lancaster doesn’t hesitate to bend the law. He soon joins forces with an FBI agent, Beth Daniels, who has her own surprising connections both to Nicki and to the stalkers — and who is obsessed, perhaps dangerously so, with solving the case.

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Swain’s style in The King Tides (named for the exceptionally high tides that often flood South Florida streets) is pared down, his pacing swift. The plot turns on an engrossing combination of Lancaster’s technological skills and his aggressive personality, which is moderated by his deep empathy with victims.

Florida plays an important role in the book, as Lancaster travels from the Pearls’ posh neighborhood to some of South Florida’s ugliest slums, with stops in the region’s trademark traffic jams. (Swain also includes some shoutouts to other Florida crime fiction writers.)

Swain builds a dark mystery in The King Tides that becomes more bizarre with each twist, but he anchors it in assured storytelling and believable details. And in Lancaster and Daniels, he gives us characters we want to meet again.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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